910 Prospect Street, La Jolla
It’s been too long since I’ve eaten at Restaurant Nine-Ten, but I’m always hoping for an excuse to revisit, as the restaurant’s reputation has slowly rocketed (forgive the oxymoron). July marked their tenth anniversary, with a celebratory offering of three-course dinners for $45 ($60 with wine pairings). For many months I’ve been eating at affordable neighborhood places, most with pretty good food, but my palate and soul badly needed the refreshment of first-class cuisine to regain perspective. After so much “pretty good,” you want a taste of “excellent-plus” to shore up your standards and remind you that food is an art form and how fabulous it can be when treated as such.
The pleasures of Nine-Ten begin with a comfortable chair to sit in, after all the butt-busting unpadded wood of the past few months. I’ve always focused more on food than comfort, but sometimes old gals do get weary, what with all these raggedy peasant taverns calling themselves wine bars or bistros or trattorias. The room at Nine-Ten is rustically pleasant, but the adjoining bar ups the sound level, sometimes to Breughelian tavern levels.
Much greater pleasures arrived with delivery of our orders. We all opted for the wine pairing. Our server was in charge of choosing matches for each dish. Eating family-style as usual, we passed the wines along with the plates, so I can’t tell you the name of every wine on the swift-passing parade, but they were interesting, clever, and for the most part, more costly than we’d dare to order à la carte on my expense budget.
Tuna tartare has become a local restaurant cliché, but this revelatory rendition makes it new and startling. One small round heap of finely minced tuna was surrounded by a school of half-inch cubes (a generous portion, even with six to share it). In the center of the minced mound, and atop each cube, was a dark-brown oval that looked like a Greek olive. Bite into it, and — joyous shock and laughter! — there came a spurt of salty-sweet liquid: ponzu sauce, bound into a mini-egg by a translucent coating of agar (seaweed gelatin). There were other goodies on the plate and exploring them felt like a stroll through an edible magic garden. I especially enjoyed the avocado-green daubs of…was that cilantro purée? Despite the menu descriptions, many dishes hold various mysteries, none easy to solve. All mouths will enjoy them for the flavors; culinary crossword-puzzlers may enjoy them additionally for the strenuous exercise in taste recognition.
Hamachi sashimi was so seductive, it even won over my friend Dave, a raw-fish-fearing microbiologist. The pristine slices came with marinated baby shiitake mushrooms and two sauces on opposite sides of the plate: a sprightly minced-scallion vinaigrette, and a velvety soy-based mixture (or was it miso-based?). On top, a few bitter green Asian leaves (shisho?). I do love a good mystery, all the more when it tastes this good, too.
In Jamaica-born chef Jason Knibb’s cuisine, Jamaican jerk pork belly is street food raised to luxury food. The modest-sized chunks of pork belly were tender, probably braised before a quick finish on the grill. They were robed in a fiery glaze involving caramelized red onions for sweetness, along with “spicy jellies” for fruit and heat. On the side were the best black-eyed peas I’ve ever tasted (another mystery — how did he do that?), strips of baked plantain slices, and a slick of soothing sweet-potato purée.
A special of ripe tricolor Chino farms tomatoes was deeply fulfilling, but a peach and nectarine salad with raw greens seemed lightweight. Dungeness crab and bay scallop pasta with house-made miso-and-egg spaghettini was also a letdown, sounding original but tasting mushy and too similar to other local restaurant dishes without the exotic pasta pedigree.
Among our entrées, as with the appetizers, seafood shone especially. A tall coral block of wild King salmon was riveting with its melting tenderness and rich but delicate flavor. It was the utter repudiation to all the joyless, flaccid, farm-raised Atlantic salmon that most local restaurants serve. (This alone is good reason for the occasional splurge dinner. I’d quite forgotten that I used to like salmon.) “I haven’t tasted salmon this good in more years than I can remember,” said Dave. “I’ve never tasted it this good, ever,” said Mark. The fish was surrounded by a host of vegetables, including slivers of Spain’s toothsome, lightly smoked piquillo peppers (tapas-bar staples) and briny green Castelvertrano olives, which tasted like firm sour pickles.
I’ve sworn off halibut at ordinary restaurants, but here it justified the risk. A flaky white iceberg arrived in a shallow bowl, surrounded by corn kernels, sea beans, and slick-and-sly hon shimeji mushrooms (but none of the peanuts the menu mentioned). The server poured the sauce over the dish at table: a kaffir lime and coconut mild green curry. Yes! This is what to do with halibut.
Roasted “wabbit” was problematic. Tenderloin roulades were stuffed with a forcemeat of bacon, hazelnuts, shallots, and herbs, evoking a rich pâté but for the pleasant grittiness of the nuts. Fine so far, but the leg was a confit, with a soft, mushy texture. (With wascally wabbits, the challenge lies in cooking the fatless legs tender, against their tendency to dry out.) I suppose the confit was a feat of cuisine, but it seemed so scarily unnatural that none of us could swallow more than a bite.
All the red meats were expertly cooked, including Grilled Certified Angus Prime New York steak (cooked to a perfect rare to our order), slow-roasted California natural lamb loin (rosy, but, oddly, a tad tough), and meltingly sweet Port wine–braised short ribs, much better than nearly everybody else’s version of this overexposed dish. All had well-chosen garnishes, including huge, near-chewy slabs of King trumpet mushrooms with the steak, artichokes with the lamb, chanterelle mushroom foam with the short ribs, plus a full, varied cast of Chino vegetables for each.
With chef Jack Fisher in charge of pastries, desserts are not merely a second thought. Our table’s favorite: Fisher’s divine, ever-changing panna cotta, a trembly eggless custard based on dairy and gelatin. This one was yogurt-based and strewn with fresh berries and seasonal fruit slices — the perfect light dessert.